Witnessing Racial Violence: Public Awareness and the Battle of Ft. Pillow

Witnessing Racial Violence: Public Awareness and the Battle of Ft. Pillow

In 2014, bystanders’ video evidence of Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s deaths at the hands of police thrust racial bias and police brutality against people of color into the national spotlight. Black Lives Matter subsequently became both a rallying cry and a movement, with followers asserting that the deaths of Brown and Garner are indicative of systemic racism, not only in the criminal justice system but among media outlets that rigorously scrutinize black victims while they fail to recognize the larger pattern of which this incidents form a part. The recent deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile captured on video–and then the killing of five police officers in Dallas, Texas–have forced the conversation about institutional racism and criminal justice to a new level of urgency. The violence is not new, and neither is the denial of rights to people of color and other marginalized groups. What is new are the means available to minority communities to testify to the general public about their experiences. With the dissemination of video and photographs across the internet, Americans find themselves confronting a reality that they might have previously simply ignored. Yet even this increased awareness is not without some precedent. Over the course of the Civil War, black Americans often found support in the court of public opinion, while their gains in legal protections were limited.

Black Union soldiers who fought in the Civil War faced a far more dangerous battleground than their white comrades. When captured, the laws of war protected white Union soldiers; black soldiers, however, could be enslaved or murdered. The Confederate government declared that black men in uniform were not soldiers, but rather slaves in “servile insurrection.” Tens of thousands of armed black men fulfilled the worst fears of a slave society whose survival depended upon eradicating black resistance. In the second half of the war, battles sometimes were sites of racially motivated war crimes.[1]

The Battle of Fort Pillow became a byword for atrocities committed against black soldiers. In early 1864, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s 1st Division Cavalry Corps, consisting of about 1,500 men, moved through Tennessee and Kentucky capturing Union prisoners and supplies while destroying posts and fortifications. On April 12, Forrest ordered his men to take Fort Pillow in Henning, Tennessee, occupied by about 580 Union troops consisting of the 13th Tennessee Cavalry, the 6th U.S. Heavy Artillery Colored (USHAC), and the 2nd U.S. Light Artillery Colored.[2] After demanding surrender, Forrest’s soldiers attacked and captured the fort, leaving behind a lopsided death toll among the white and black soldiers trapped inside. An estimated 70% of the black troops stationed at the fort were killed, compared to about 40% of the white troops.[3] Soon, reports came in detailing that black and white soldiers had been shot down after surrendering their weapons, black soldiers had been buried alive, and that at least one soldier had been nailed to a wall and burned. Northern newspapers demanded retaliation, and southern newspapers celebrated the victory.[4]

The Battle of Ft. Pillow, a lithograph from Kurz and Allison. Image from Blackpast.org, accessed July 14, 2016.
The Battle of Ft. Pillow, a lithograph from Kurz and Allison. Courtesy of Blackpast.org. 

U.S. congressmen who made up the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War investigated the reports, interviewing about 50 of the survivors and witnesses, including 18 soldiers from the 6th USHAC. Private Thomas Adison, Company C, 6th USHAC testified that he saw Forrest’s men shoot children serving officers at the fort, stating that “never saw folks shot down so in my life.” Another private in Company C, Arthur Edwards, spoke about his helplessness in the face of Forrest’s men.

Committee members: Were you at Fort Pillow when it was taken?

Pvt. Edwards: Yes, sir.

Q: Tell me what you saw there.

A: I was shot after I surrendered.

Q: When?

A: About half past four o’clock?

Q: Where were you when you were shot?

A: I was lying down behind a log.

Q: Where were you shot?

A: In the head first, then in the shoulder, then in my right wrist; and then in the head again, about half an hour after that.

Q: How many men shot you?

A: One shot me three times, and then a lieutenant shot me.

Q: Did they say anything when they shot you?

A: No, sir, only I asked them not to shoot me, and they said, “God damn you, you are fighting against your master.”[5]

Excerpts from these testimonies and the news of Ft. Pillow soon elicited a public conversation.

In the following months, the ordeal of the 6th USHAC and the other victims of Nathan Bedford Forrest captured attention and sympathy among members of the northern public. Newspapers in the North carried the story of Forrest’s indiscriminate “slaughter.” USCT recruiters wrote to Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, that knowledge about the massacre was widespread enough to discourage free blacks in the North from enlisting in the Union Army.[6] Joint Committee member and Ohio Senator Benjamin Wade wrote in the New York Times, “It will appear from testimony thus taken, that the atrocities committed at Fort Pillow were not the result of passions excited by the heat of conflict, but were the result of a policy deliberately decided upon, and unhesitatingly announced.”[7] Survivor and witness testimonies from Ft. Pillow engendered a conversation throughout the Union, not just among politicians, about the relationship between justice and race.

For the 6th USHAC, the testimonies led nowhere. Forrest and his 1st Cavalry escaped any legal reckoning for the massacre at Ft. Pillow. But the episode at the fort, and the broader experience of racial atrocities in the Civil War, provided an opportunity for black Americans to testify to the general public in their own words. When black Americans testified, they found a platform with the northern public with which to talk about atrocities that would have gone unnoticed and unrecorded. Today, social media is fueling grass roots activism to force another such reckoning with racially-motivated violence.

The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile last week were part of one historical legacy—that they were witnessed and recorded is part of another.


[1] There are still no reliable estimates as to how many black soldiers suffered these fates. The official tally of black POWs is merely an estimate, numbering a scant 770. An updated total has yet to be determined, but given the numbers of captured black soldiers found throughout the Official Records, 770 is a likely an underestimation. See Lonnie Speer, Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 114.

[1] George Washington Williams, A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012), 221.

[2] Albert Castel, “The Fort Pillow Massacre: An Examination of the Evidence,” in Black Flag Over Dixie, 90-98. Castel notes that many of the men in the 13th Tennessee were deserters from Forrest’s command, which may have contributed to the massacre.

[3] Ibid, 91.

[4] The Liberator, October 28 1864, accessed July 7, 2016, https://www.newspapers.com/image/35048830/; The Daily Confederate, April 22 1864, accessed July 7, 2016, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83025813/1864-04-22/ed-1/seq-2/#date1=1864&index=18&rows=20&words=Fort+massacre+Pillow&searchType=basic&sequence=0&state=&date2=1864&proxtext=fort+pillow+massacre&y=0&x=0&dateFilterType=yearRange&page=1.

[5] “Report on the Fort Pillow Massacre,” U.S. Congress, Joint Committee on the Conduct of War, 1864, Internet Archive edition, 20-22.

[6] “Interesting from Washington: Rebel Account from Fort Pillow Massacre,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 24, 1864, America’s Historical Newspapers; Thomas Webster to Edwin Stanton, 27 April 1864, Abraham Barker Collection on the Free Military School for the Command of Colored Regiments, c. 1863-1895, #1968, Folder 21, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Caroline Newhall

Caroline Newhall is a PhD student at UNC Chapel Hill. Her master's thesis, “’This is the point on which the whole matter hinges’: Locating and Including the Voices of Black Civil War POWs,” argues that black prisoners of war are largely understudied, yet they were central figures in the narrative of Civil War military prisons and prisoner exchanges. She can be reached at cwoodn@live.unc.edu.

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